Justice in the Case of Luis Santos’ Death: A California Citizen and Friend of the Santos’ Family Weighs In

by Amber Burke

Just a few years ago, in August 2008, I was sitting at a party in the home of the Santos family.  Their home was full of love and laughter, and it was then that I was introduced to Luis Santos.  He was a beautiful boy; and I could see him becoming a handsome man in the future.  He was charming and quick to smile and laugh.  He interacted with his elderly relatives, parents, and cousins in a way that was thoughtful and considerate.  I spoke with him for quite a while that day, and he told me all about the goals had for himself, and what sounded like big plans for a really bright future I was both charmed and impressed by him.

Only a couple of months later, on October 5 of that same year, I was told that Luis had been murdered.  How could that be?  He wasn’t the kind of kid to look for trouble.  How on earth could something like that be true?

As I sat as Luis’s funeral, listening to his father sing, “Let it Be” to him, listening to Luis’s young cousin speak, I cried from my soul at this horrendous and senseless loss.  I cried for him, I cried for his parents, and I cried for a world in which such violence and evil should exist.  The pain and loss of all of those people in the packed, large church at his funeral was overwhelming. I didn’t even know how to begin to help his grieving parents.

I watched the news and internet for any new information that would shed some kind of understanding onto this senseless, violent act. As the facts of the case came to light, I listened in horror and frustration.  Luis and his friends had gone to a couple of college parties that they’d been invited to on that tragic Saturday night.  On the way out of the second party, they were accosted by a gang of boys and attacked.   Their attackers had previously tried to crash a fraternity party and had been kicked out, and it seemed that they were looking for retribution for being kicked out of the party.  Three of the Luis’s friends were stabbed, one was punched in the eye so hard that he required emergency eye surgery to repair the damage, and Luis was killed when he was stabbed through his heart.

I was shocked and horrified to learn the identity of one of his assailants. It was Esteban Nuñez, the son of a Former California State Assemblyman Speaker, Fabian Nuñez. Although he was not the one who actually wielded the blade that killed Luis, he was also carrying a knife that night, and stabbed two of the other boys; one of whom was seriously injured by stab wounds to the stomach and back.  In fact, the doctors said that one inch either way, and that boy too, would have been killed in the attack.  The boys in Luis’s group had no weapons on them.

Esteban Nuñez was not some poor street kid from a broken, impoverished home.   This was the child of a wealthy and powerful political figure in California, a representative elected to make and uphold the laws for our state. It didn’t make any sense that his son could be involved with something like this. In the weeks and months that followed, the evidence mounted that Esteban Nuñez was not such a nice boy; despite the wealth and privilege he enjoyed, or the glowing character references that the judge received from high ranking public officials, such as  the Mayor of Los Angeles. Before it was taken down, I saw  Esteban Nuñez’s Facebook page, where he displayed images of himself and his friends torturing cats, showing gang signs, using foul language, and being disrespectful to both women and authority. Furthermore, Esteban was quoted as saying that he would “get away with the murder” because “his father would fix it all for him.”  He’d previously told a police officer who had stopped him for speeding to, “go ahead and give him a ticket ─ did the officer know who his dad was?”

It became apparent as time went on, that he and his friends went out that Saturday night, driving all the way from Sacramento to San Diego, armed with knives, looking for a fight. As the case was heard, the defense pointed out that the attackers had tried to destroy the evidence of the attack by burning their clothes and getting rid of the murder weapons, and colluding in an attempt to throw police off their trail.  Only the closed-captioned TV cameras on the campus, and tips from the public, including one from a cousin of one of the assailants, brought them to the authority’s attention.

I also watched as the victim’s parents, Fred and Kathy Santos, along with their daughter, Brigida, carried themselves with grace and spoke with eloquence on behalf of their dead son and brother.  I watched them suffer financially, emotionally, and physically, with the publicity and the trial process, and   it was a sickening sight for anyone to witness.  I did the only thing I could, and that was to write on my personal blog about the situation.  Maybe it didn’t do anything truly helpful, but I received letters from Luis’s friends and relatives telling me that it gave them something.

That’s why, when Fred Santos announced that they were going to accept a plea bargain, in which the perpetrators would plead guilty to the lesser crime of manslaughter rather than stand trial for murder, I was shocked.  Why would the Santos family be satisfied with such a thing?  But, Fred explained that his wife and daughter were emotionally and physically worn down from the trial process, and to go through a jury trial would take another several years. Between the trials and automatic appeals processes, they had no certainty that the defendants would receive life sentences. They felt that justice would be served by the judge. They trusted the judicial system and prayed for a fair outcome.  It was also believed by their lawyers that the longer that the case was allowed to drag along, the more political power could be wielded by the other side. The Santos family was completely disheartened to hear that the Mayor of Los Angeles had publicly declared Esteban Nuñez innocent even before the courts heard any evidence in the case.

However, when the judge handed down his sentence, he stated that after listening to all of the evidence and reflecting on the heinous crime that had been committed, he had no choice but to inflict the maximum sentence for manslaughter.  The Santos family breathed a sigh of relief that the trial was now over, justice was served, and they could go back to mourning Luis in private.

On January 2, 2011, the news broke.  I could hardly believe my eyes when I caught sight of the headline: “Schwarzenegger Commutes Nuñez Sentence.”   I started to cry as I read the article with horror.  I couldn’t believe it was true.  I started searching the Internet, trying to find how this could have happened.  I later received a very sad email from Fred Santos, confirming the story.  He was both bewildered and heartbroken. In addition, the governor’s office not only did not contact the Santos family to let them know of the governor’s decision, they also didn’t contact the San Diego district attorney to get any information on the case.  The first the Santos family heard of this decision was from the media, when they asked them to comment.

Fred Santos learned that Fabian Nuñez was seen coming out of the governor’s office just a short time before the pardon was signed.  (Note: This is an unsubstantiated claim made by a reporter who was covering the case).  He was also an invited guest and attended the party for the Governor’s farewell on December 16, 2010.   He can be seen here singing for the Governor at his farewell roast: http://www.baycitizen.org/videos/fabian-Nuñez-sings-schwarzenegger-roast/ Fabian Nuñez was a known friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as someone who had helped Schwarzenegger in his personal business dealings.  One of these deals, relating to possible illegal gifting of state assets, is being reviewed and challenged in court by the new Governor, Jerry Brown.

Esteban Nuñez had only spent a few months in prison.  He had been out on bail during the whole trial process as his family could afford the one million dollar bail bond for him.  He was only taken into custody May 5, of 2010, to begin serving his sentence after pleading guilty to the reduced charges.

Nuñez accepted a plea bargain, knowing that he would not win in a jury trial, as the evidence against him was too overwhelming.

Therefore, my questions are, why would Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d used his power to pardon so frugally throughout his administration, choose to intervene in this particular case, unless it was politically, financially, or personally motivated?  And why wait until the last minute, as he was leaving office, to do it?  Why would he not ask for the records from the district attorney to get an understanding of the case?  If he felt the sentence so harsh, why did he not do the same for the other boys who were involved in the death of Luis Santos?  Why single Nuñez out?

Yes, Esteban Nuñez may not have killed Luis Santos, but he tried to kill two of the other boys, and nearly succeeded in doing just that.  California law makes everyone involved in the same crime equally responsible. Esteban Nuñez was carrying a weapon, and used it on unarmed people who wished him no harm.  In the immediate aftermath, he attempted to cover up the crime. So, if not for the identity of Esteban’s father, what reason would Schwarzenegger have to believe that he deserved any leniency?  The reason he cited was that Esteban Nuñez had no prior record, but how many crimes does someone have to commit before murder should be punished to the full extent of the law?  When did it become less of a crime to murder someone just because you don’t have a previous record?

Everyone should be as outraged as I by this entire case.  The governor’s pardon wasn’t put in for political cronyism. So should this practice be allowed to continue, or should a bill be created which states that any official who has the power to pardon not be allowed to use that power within a certain period prior to leaving office. In that way, he or she would have to face the people and suffer the backlash of abuse of that power.

My heart is so heavy as I write this.  I decided to share my friendship with the Santos family, and my belief in the injustice that took place over the death of their son, because I believe that everyone should be aware of what I believe was and is a misuse of power that’s happening in our country. It nullifies our whole justice system and the power of a fair trial.  It highlights the fact that if you’re rich or well connected you can get away with murder.

It’s my hope that this story will touch every reader, and we will all choose not to vote for politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Fabian Nuñez in the future as they pursue their careers.  We may not be able to repeal Schwarzenegger’s decision in the courts, but we can send the message to all of our elected officials that we will not stand for any type of special favors and privilege for the wealthy, powerful and famous.

Apparently young Esteban was indeed correct; his father did fix it for him.

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Editor’s note: Prior to the time of publication of this piece, Arnold Schwarzenegger had written a letter of apology to the Santo’s family, a letter which was seen as a political maneuver by Luis Santo’s parents.  It should be pointed out that although Nuñez did not kill Luis Santos, he was originally sentenced to 16 years for his role in the brawl ─ the same sentence given to Santos’ killer, Ryan Jett. Schwarzenegger commuted Nuñez’s sentence to six years, and Nuñez is now serving time at Mule Creek State Prison, where, The Los AngelesTimes reports, Fabian Nuñez is already working on his son’s behalf by giving gifts to prison employees.

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